Locking up prisoners with mental health problems is both cruel and barbaric…

A few months ago I took a tour of the Crumlin Road Gaol. During the tour the guide explained how during the 19th century it was the practice to keep prisoners solitary at all times. This was known as the Separate System. To quote the Wikipedia article on it:

The objective of such a prison or “penitentiary” was that of penance by the prisoners through silent reflection upon their crimes and behaviour, as much as that of prison security.

An example of isolation in lincoln castle prison chapel

Prisoners were alone in their cells. When they were moved from their cells they were hooded. Even in church they were kept in separate booths unable to see other prisoners. Tom Clarke, one of the leaders of the 1916 rising experienced such a system after being convicted of his part in an explosives campaign in the 1880’s.

As you can imagine the social isolation drove many prisoners mad. During the tour I was thinking what a sadistic shower the Victorians really were.

Roll forward to modern times and you have to ask the question are we really much better than the Victorians?

The Detail has a report on how a how prisoner in Maghaberry blinded himself by “gouging” his eyes. To quote from the post:

Sean Lynch was 23-years-old in 2014 when he was remanded in custody facing assault charges.

Despite the fact that a detailed medical report was sent to Maghaberry stating that a psychiatric assessment was an “absolute necessity”, he was treated as a “routine referral” and it was two weeks before he was taken to see a psychiatrist.

A new report by Northern Ireland’s Prisoner Ombudsman Tom McGonigle has described Mr Lynch’s self-harming incident as “extreme and shocking”. The report refers to CCTV footage from an observation cell of Mr Lynch “gouging” his eye rendering himself blind and inflicting injuries to his groin.

Mr McGonigle criticised prison officers for not intervening in the self harming incident that occured over a period of 67 minutes during which Mr Lynch was directly observed and spoken to by landing officers for 17 minutes.

This incident is shocking but really it is the tip of a very large iceberg. From a past report by the Detail:

in October 2011 the trust’s director of Adult Services, Desmond Bannon, told the Health Committee at Stormont that of 5,000 prisoners treated in jail over the course of a year, some 1,000 would have a personality disorder, 130 a psychosis, 750 a neurosis, 712 an addiction, and that a further 12 prisoners would have attempted suicide in the previous seven days;

in September 2011 the Health Minister, Edwin Poots MLA, told the Assembly that “90% of prisoners have a diagnosable mental health problem, substance misuse problem, or both”.

There have also been some interesting cases at the European Court on prisoners and mental health.

The [European] Court [of Human Rights] has held on many occasions that the detention of a person who is ill may raise issues under Article 3 of the [European] Convention [on Human Rights, which prohibits inhuman or degrading treatment] … and that the lack of appropriate medical care may amount to treatment contrary to that provision … In particular, the assessment of whether the particular conditions of detention are incompatible with the standards of Article 3 has, in the case of mentally ill persons, to take into consideration their vulnerability and their inability, in some cases, to complain coherently or at all about how they are being affected by any particular treatment …

Many of you reading this may have suffered from mental health problems. The idea of someone with an anxiety disorder for example being locked up in a cold grey cell for 23 hours a day is both cruel and barbaric. Prisons should only be for violent offenders or those who are a risk to society. We need a system that reforms people, not tortures them.

In 100 years’ time will people look back at us and wonder how we let such cruelty go on?

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